Stop & Shop workers appear to be on the verge of a strike.
After the contract between the Quincy-based grocery store chain and the union representing its employees expired last month, WBUR reported Friday that relations between the two sides have “gone from bad to worse.” And according to Jeff Bollen, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, one of the five locals representing the 31,000 Stop & Shop workers in southern New England, a strike may be on its way.
“I just don’t think they’re going to have enough on the table, when we get to the end of the road in a few weeks,” Bollen said in a Facebook video Thursday.
The local unions have now been in negotiations with Stop & Shop for more than two months. Unlike the infamous 2014 Market Basket protests over the company’s leadership resulting in empty shelves and customer boycotts, these negotiations directly center around employee wages and benefits.
Stop & Shop, which is owned by the Dutch food retail giant Ahold Delhaize, argues that its workforce is among the most highly paid in the region with an average hourly wage rate of $21.30. As the “only large fully-unionized food retailer left in New England,” the company says it remains committed to providing its associates with “highly competitive wages, comprehensive health care coverage and, unlike any other area food retailers, a defined benefit pension.” In a statement Thursday, Stop & Shop said it had made a wide range of contract proposals that would “improve the overall compensation package” for its workers.
Union officials disagree.
UFCW leaders said last week that the company’s latest contract proposal — while improved — still includes “drastic cuts” to their workers’ take-home pay, health care benefits, and retirement security. In particular, according to Local 328 President Timothy Melia, the health care options being offered in the proposed contract consist of “high cost high deductible plans that would result in less coverage and more out of pocket cost for our members.” Bollen says the company also isn’t offering time-and-a-half pay on Sundays for all workers.
“We strongly suggested that they had better rethink and rework their proposals to reflect the profitable company they are,” Melia wrote to members Friday.
As of March 10, all five locals — representing Stop & Shop’s workers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — had voted to authorize a strike, which allows union leadership to call a strike at any moment in the negotiation process. Bollen said Thursday that he thinks the company will ultimately “demand some kind of givebacks and concessions.”
“And with that, we will be going out,” he said.
What will that look like for customers?
Stefanie Shuman, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, says the company would like to avoid a strike. However, they have plans to keep their stores open.
“In the unfortunate event that a union strike or job action occurs, we have plans in place to minimize disruptions to our store operations so that our customers can continue to count on Stop & Shop,” Shuman said. “This will include the deployment of Stop & Shop corporate personnel, as well as temporary replacement workers, and our stores will remain open.”
Still, it remains to be seen how seamlessly things would run.
In addition to the company’s usual store workers walking out, the hundreds of Stop & Shop warehouse employees and truck drivers are prepared to stand in solidarity with their fellow supermarket workers. In a letter to Stop & Shop President Mark McGowan last week, the Teamsters union representing the company’s New England-area distribution employees warned that they will “honor and support UFCW Members on strike at any and all” stores in the region.
“The services Teamsters provide are an important element of ensuring that Stop and Shop Supermarkets operate smoothly,” wrote Sean O’Brien, the president of Teamsters Local 25.
O’Brien noted that his members deliver food and other supplies to every Stop & Shop in New England, as well as pick up trash from the stores.
“Our members have spoken and are unified in doing what’s right for our stores, customers, and communities,” the UFCW said in a statement last week. “The next round of negotiations will be critical in determining what direction we take.”
According to Stop & Shop, no additional dates have been scheduled.
“We hope to reach new agreements as soon as possible and remain available for additional negotiation sessions at any time,” spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan said Monday, who reiterated that the company has “contingency plans in place to minimize any disruptions for our customers.”
Union officials say they’re taking the next week or so to meet with store workers about the company’s proposed contract before moving forward. At the same time, they’re asking members to bring “appropriate clothing” to work in preparation for a strike.
“This is not something that I take lightly, but if the Company’s behavior does not improve, I feel that they will leave me with no other choice,” Melia wrote to members.